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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Apollo 13: The Dark Side Of The Moon
Original Theatre Online   Autumn 2020

A welcome addition to the growing body of a new art for, Zoom theatre, this production from Original Theatre is technically very impressive and the occasion for some excellent acting. Unfortunately the play itself is a disappointment.

Playwright Torben Betts addresses the 1970 space flight that was meant to be the third moon landing before an onboard accident turned it into an extraordinary (and successful) rescue mission.

The 1995 film about Apollo 13 focused on the rescue and the courageous and inventive ways the three astronauts in space and the entire NASA crew on the ground managed to get the men home safely. Torben Betts looks at a different side of the story.

Because their journey actually took them around the moon, and because for the nineteen minutes they were behind it they had no radio contact with earth, the three men were simultaneously further away from home and more isolated than any other humans have ever been.

What did it feel like to be almost literally in the middle of nowhere? It's a valid question, but the only answers Betts can come up with are banal and unimpressive.

Left on their own, the men briefly speak of home and family. But then they get sidetracked into bickering over Cold War politics, the Vietnam war and whether America does or does not have a racial problem. (Historically the three astronauts were all white, but Betts makes one black to allow for that dispute.)

The nearest they come to deep thought could have come out of a fortune cookie: 'It seems to me this universe is a big, cold, dark and lonely place, and love is the only thing we've got to keep us warm.'

It is barely possible that that is Betts's point that unimaginative men (and the astronauts were not chosen for their poetic inspiration) will remain unimaginative even in extraordinary circumstances. But that is too cynical and ultimately insulting a meaning to take from the story of Apollo 13.

If what the playwright has to say is far too little, the production's manner of saying it is admirable. Although the actors were recorded separately in different locations, Film Director and Editor Tristan Shepherd creates the convincing impression of three men in the same small capsule.

Actual newsreels and NASA films are edited in seamlessly, even to the point of matching occasional bursts of visual static, and clever camera placement creates the illusion of weightlessness.

A separate Director listing is given to Alistair Whatley, who must take some of the credit for the fine performances throughout. The actors playing the three astronauts Tom Chambers, Christopher Harper and Michael Salami are at their best when close-ups allow us to see brief flashes of worry in their eyes that belie the all-business confidence in their voices.

The main story is framed by an imagined modern-day interview with two of the men, and Geoff Aymer and Philip Franks convey a reassuring sense of maturity and wisdom even though they are not given much that is mature or wise to say.

Apollo 13: The Dark Side Of The Moon is well worth seeing for the acting and technical accomplishments, impressive both in themselves and for what they suggest about the potential of online theatre as a new art form. The best thing to say about the play itself is that it served as an inspiration and vehicle for the production.

Gerald Berkowitz

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